A soulful singer’s ship comes in
Here we go again with another one of those “a guy goes to Web design school, becomes a blues musician instead, takes a job in a cruise ship piano lounge, and is discovered on the high seas and recruited by Microsoft” stories.
Yawn. Cliché. Tale as old as time, right? No? Let’s try that again.
A guy walks into a bar.
The guy is Bryan Roper, and the bar is Egg Bar in Davos, Switzerland.
“You see that a lot in Europe – places with names like ‘Sports Land Restaurant,’” Roper said.
It’s January, and after a long day of technological show-and-tell at World Economic Forum, the Microsoft marketing manager ducked into Egg Bar looking for an ATM. That’s when he spotted it – a piano.
“I’d been working a lot, and away from my piano. I asked the bartender there if she would mind if I played a bit,” Roper said. “She looked at me like I might play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’”
She hesitated. “Umm …”
“It used to be my job,” Roper told her reassuringly. “And if it bothers anybody, I’ll stop.”
Roper sat down on the piano bench and put his hands on the keys. He started playing his soul, which sounds a lot like the blues, and prepared to hear groans from the room.
“In America if you play the blues – even if it’s really good – people ask you to play something else,” Roper said.
The complaints never came. The crowd, a combination of Swiss locals and international visitors in town for the forum, ate it up. Roper watched as glass after glass of wine, sent over by appreciative patrons, started to line up on the piano like planes waiting to land (though very few of them did).p
“It was more than I could ever drink,” Roper said.
Feeding off the energy in the room, he started picking up speed, moving to some boogie woogie – “Great Balls of Fire” and “Johnny B. Good.” By the time the bar closed, the woman who had been reluctant to let him play was asking him how long he’d be in town. Roper ended up playing at Egg Bar the next night, and the next, and the next. He left Switzerland with a much-needed piano fix and 25 new Facebook friends.
The man can work a room. It’s a keen ability honed from years of playing for the toughest of crowds at Florida blues clubs, places with names like The Green Iguana and The Blue Shark, and from years of presiding over a cruise ship piano lounge packed with rowdy, sunburned, well-sauced vacationers. This stage presence, this sort of je ne sais quoi, has made for some truly unexpected key changes in Roper’s young life. In fact, it’s what landed the musician and cruise ship veteran at Microsoft.
When Roper arrives for our coffee meeting, I’m a bit startled by how little he resembles the typical technology company employee. He looks more like a detective for the Miami Police Department in his straw fedora, well-sculpted beard, tropical-print button-up and cream-colored linen pants. Roper is an interesting cocktail of a person. He’s cool, street smart and tough, like Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown,” but he’s also unfailingly polite, friendly and approachable, and seems quite huggable, like Teddy Ruxpin.
Roper was born and raised in Tampa, Florida, the son of a telecommunications engineer father who came from a traditional Southern family, and a “very Latin” spitfire-of-a-mother, who is a laboratory technologist (for a time, Roper’s primary language was Spanish). Bored by high school, Roper worked with a guidance counselor to test out early and pursue his dream of becoming a comic book artist.
“I could draw well, but a drawing that would take me four hours would take some really great artists four minutes. I realized there was not a really good chance of being competitive or earning a good income,” Roper said.
So he switched to Web design, earning an associate’s degree in interactive media development before his peers had even earned their high school diplomas. He started earning money doing freelance design and, around the same time, was teaching himself to play the piano and guitar and sneaking into a blues bar at the end of his street. He was mesmerized – he wanted to be up there on the stage. When he was 20, he got his big chance at a blues jam session at The Green Iguana. He invited all of his friends, “and a couple of girls that I liked.”
Roper was playing the blues guitar, and fumbled the opening of a song. The band leader stopped the music and called him out in front of his fellow musicians and the crowd.
“I just got owned. I was humiliated,” Roper said. “But the worst moment of my life at the time ended up making everything happen. A man stopped him on the way out and said, ‘Hey man, you did good, you just need to play a little more. Come out to the Blue Shark and you can play with us.’”
Within a year, Roper was back in school at the University of Tampa pursuing a degree in music, writing dark classical pieces, playing blues gigs around town, and paying the bills with freelance Web design and a job at a sports bar. Shortly after earning his music degree he met a bass player who invited Roper to play keyboard in his cruise ship rock ‘n’ roll band, The Dirt Poets.
“So we went on cruise ships and started playing six nights a week, everything from Creed to The Commodores to Kenny Wayne Shepherd and any of the dance tunes you’d expect to hear,” Roper said. “That was a pivotal point. There’s no better place to learn about consumers than on a cruise ship.”
There’s no better place to learn about consumers than on a cruise ship.
He watched the lead singer of the band intently – how the guy warmed up a room, how he got people dancing, how he cooled the room down again.
“I used to get really mad that all people seemed to want to hear was Steve Miller or ‘Brick House,’” Roper said. “I had to realize that this had nothing to do with my personal gratification as an artist and everything to do with giving people a memorable time. So I shut up, and swallowed my pride, and wrote my own songs on the side, and gave people what they paid for, which wasn’t blues, and it wasn’t hip, but it was meaningful to them.”
That epiphany would serve him well, especially after he decided to audition for a position in the piano lounge. (Bonus: The piano lounge singer gets a solo cabin, a major upgrade for cruise ship crew.) Roper was bullish, and not remotely deterred by his somewhat limited repertoire. He got the job, and quickly realized that being a piano man can be brutal.
“You can only say, ‘No, I don’t know that tune’ so many times before they hate you. They would just heckle me, and berate me, and that was tough,” Roper said. “The first two weeks I tried to keep my guard up, but the room would just turn on me. Finally, I started explaining that I just got this gig, and that if they had a song they really wanted to hear I would try to learn it by the end of the cruise. I tried to make up for having limited songs with jokes and personality. When you’re real with people, you make a connection. Their whole outlook changed.”
When the piano bar was closed, Roper was still there behind the locked door, practicing and learning as many new songs as he could. Each night there were fewer hecklers, and before long, he had mastered just about any song people could throw at him as well as the subtle science of crowd psychology: piano lounge edition.
See, there’s a mathematics to the whole thing, a series of “if x, then x” equations designed to get people in the seats, ordering drinks, having fun and tipping well. Roper demonstrated this for me one afternoon in The Royal Room, a club in Seattle’s South End. He was playing the grand piano to an empty house, starting with my request (Stevie Ray Vaughn, which he absolutely killed) and some of his original work, which ranges from blues to radio pop to sweeping, cinematic classical pieces.
“Will you demonstrate the key principles of piano lounge science?” I asked him. “I’ll give you a scenario, and you tell me what you’d play. For starters, what would you play if the piano lounge was empty, and people were just walking by?”
Roper started pounding out a raucous “Johnny B. Good,” but didn’t sing. “When people walking by hear a song they know and love but without any words, they think, ‘I should go in there right now, he’s going to start singing any second.’ Then, once a crowd comes in the door, I’ll start singing.”
What if it was getting late, and he wanted the lounge to clear out so he could close? “Ah. You’ve got to play a song that’s slow and sad, but still a great song, so usually I hit them with this,” said Roper as he started playing and singing, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” by Elton John. “They’ll start thinking about all of the sad things in their life and how they should go to bed.”
When he’s short on tips, he’ll play “Roxanne” by The Police and have a cute girl pass his jar around. If it was a college crowd, he’d play Bon Jovi or Snoop Dogg. As you’d expect, people often ask for the same few songs night … after … night. Roper found the more he resisted playing particularly repetitive crowd-pleasers, the more people were willing to tip for them (patrons once pooled $700 to convince him to play ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”). This spurred Roper to post a sanity-preserving “Bryan’s Most Annoying Song List” on his piano featuring songs he would play, but only for a hefty tip, including “Free Bird,” “Margaritaville,” “Sweet Caroline,” and of course, “Piano Man.”
“Piano Man, hands down, is the worst – simply because I’ve played it thousands of times,” Roper said.
Roper traveled all over the world on cruise ships, fell in love with a beautiful Polish violinist from the ship’s orchestra, and moved to Poland with her, where he taught English and the two had a son, Daniel. He was living there about five years ago when he got an offer to play for Holland America, where he could earn officer status after six months, meaning his wife and son could sail with him for free.
Soon after taking the gig, a friend told him about the Holland America Digital Workshop Program, which offered similar benefits as being a cruise musician. So Roper left the frenetic energy of the piano to become a Microsoft-trained “techspert” teaching cruisers how to use Windows computers.
Competing with swimming pools and the casino and musical revues and the buffet, a computer class on a cruise ship must be a ghost town, right? Actually, it’s one of the most popular activities onboard all of Holland America’s 15 ships. There’s often standing room only for the free daily workshops, where guests learn how to take better photos, create a vacation slideshow or video, use social media and more. There, Roper learned how to work a very different room.
“I remember one guy who had to be 70 was sitting in the back the whole class, grumbling at me. At first I thought he was a jerk, but he kept coming back, and one day he was still sitting there after everyone left. He was too proud to ask for help, but was telling me he needed it, in his own way,” Roper said.
Roper went and sat by the man. “I was a pilot for the Navy,” the man said, “but I feel so stupid with this stuff. Everyone is good at this but me – I can’t even get the pictures off my damn camera.”
“Hey, you’re not dumb – you can do a lot of things I can’t. This is just new to you,” Roper told him. He then showed the man a few basics, including how to get the pictures off his camera. While thanking him, the older man got surprisingly emotional.
“That’s what I love about what I do, because when you have people experience things first hand, it makes a connection,” Roper said. “I don’t have to rattle off a list of features and specs, I put something right in someone’s hands, and that empowers them, and when you empower them, all the other marketing metrics you’re supposed to hit will happen.”
It was there, teaching technology on an Alaskan cruise, that Lisa Sikora “discovered” Roper. She was managing the Digital Workshop Program at the time, and was on the ship to make sure everything was going well. She attended several of Roper’s classes and was wowed by his ability to connect with people.
“His previous life as an entertainer has played a big role. He’s just got this creative spark, and when you take that creativity and couple it with technology and the ability to speak to, entertain and engage hundreds of people at a time, that’s pretty powerful,” said Sikora, Microsoft’s director of partnerships and experiential marketing.
The two kept in touch for about a year, and eventually Roper took a job as a lead trainer, teaching the people who would be teaching Microsoft technology. His ability to work a room comes in handy there as well.
“He can use that same formula to keep people engaged with stuff that’s a lot less catchy than music,” Sikora said. “He’s a rock star.”
In his four years at Microsoft, Roper has trained thousands of Microsoft brand ambassadors, the people who will go on to staff Microsoft Retail and pop-up stores, and holiday and launch experiences. His goal, he said, is to make his students “10 times more enthusiastic than the average consumer.” He’s trained news anchors, and demonstrated technology for celebrities at the Sundance Film Festival. He was in a prime time television ad aired during “The Voice” and the Kentucky Derby. He’s “secret shopped” his way across the country, driving 5,000 miles and visiting 60 retailers posing as a customer (all while taking systematic notes on how to improve the Microsoft experience in large tech stores).
In his free time, he uses Skype to keep in touch with his son (still in Poland with his ex-wife, with whom Roper has a strong friendship). He writes and records music at a studio in his apartment. He reads comic books, visits the mini boxing gym he set up for himself in a storage unit near his apartment (he’s lost about 100 lbs. since his piano lounge days), and has even started volunteering at a dementia care home.
I never could have planned this path on purpose.
“The part of the brain that deteriorates with dementia is different than the one that remembers music,” Roper said. “A lot of the times they can’t remember their family members, or even how to speak, but they remember their songs. It’s amazing.”
Though he’s had his share of hard knocks and sharp left turns, Roper said he’s thrilled to find himself in the Pacific Northwest, trying to break into the local music scene by night and roaming Microsoft headquarters by day in a fedora, the company’s very own tech-savvy piano man.
“I love having a career where I really do use everything that I’ve learned in my life. I am an entertainer, a teacher and a tech guy, and now I have a job that blends all three of those things,” Roper said. “I never could have planned this path on purpose.”Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft